By Toby Rowe
In 1986, a 13 year old kid went across the country on a youth mission trip. After 25 years, he can still remember a few things. Like the teary yet proud eyes of an elderly, Navajo woman who received her first concrete floor. And the moment where he walked up to the cross on stage in a moment of surrender to Jesus.
That kid was me, when God used a week of missions to say, “If I can do this much with just a week of your life, imagine what I could do with your whole life.” My story is echoed by the millions of Christian youth who have gone on mission trips over the last 30 years.
That’s not to say that youth mission trips have evolved into perfection. Youth leaders can be goofballs and fanatics and every other imaginable extreme. And the students that attend… certainly have a lot to be desired. They range from disinterested to self-righteous. Some get it. Some don’t. Few involved can articulate the perfect reasons for their excursion. There must be a better way, right?
Full disclosure: I went on a Group Mission Trip, and I’m proud to now work for that same, great organization that has been creating mission experiences where youth encounter Jesus – for more than 35 years.
I’ve read articles and blogs that call youth mission trips everything from tourism to toddler-ish. My reaction: that’s just silly. Just because you find some useless churches doesn’t make the Church a useless institution. Similarly, finding a flaw in a particular mission trip doesn’t make the entire concept flawed, theologically or practically.
Youth mission trips matter. And they work. While mission trips might not be perfect, they are the perfect way to help people in need and grow your students’ relationship with Jesus. I see it day in and day out. And here’s why:
1. Mission trips are the perfect way to help people in need.
Mission trips matter to people who need help and support in a myriad of ways. The Church needs people to go into the world, and kids love doing it. This is a no-brainer, and it works.
In our team, 7 people work full time, all year to make sure the right people receive the right help from the 35,000 people that serve at our mission events every year. The list of stories and thank you letters from people who are overflowing with gratitude to our youth groups and to the God we serve is truly too long to even comprehend. Multiply that times every mission organization and trip that happens every year, and you have a global work of God’s Kingdom in epic proportions.
2. Mission trips are the perfect way to help students grow in their relationship with Jesus.
Using our organization as an example (and the principle applies across the mission trip universe), over 90% of participants every year say they grew closer to Jesus during their mission trip. That’s not just a trite phrase. We take that very seriously.
Spiritual growth like that doesn’t happen by accident. We spend 15 months preparing for the spiritual aspects of our mission trips, using a team of leaders and youth workers from Group, Simply Youth Ministry, and local churches. The process involves an indescribable amount of thought, prayer, planning, testing, and reworking, plus a ton of room for the Holy Spirit to simply show up and work. The result – a week where students encounter the Savior in a way that just cannot be replicated.
Here’s a final thought. While the religious people were busy doing “synagogue,” Jesus put together an odd assortment of deeply flawed, yet willing disciples and hit the road to grow faith, build a church, and change the world. His mission trip helped people in need and resulted in profound spiritual transformation. And Jesus allowed those people to mess up and grow up all at the same time.
Toby Rowe has been in youth ministry for over 20 years and is the Mission Program Manager for Group Mission Trips and Simply Youth Ministry. You can also find him speaking and teaching at ministry events or continuing his reign as a self-described whack-a-mole champion. Keep in touch on Facebook or Twitter: @tobyfro